Death Penalty

Not Even COVID-19 Infections Among Prison Staff Can Convince the Feds To Halt Executions

Five who tested positive recently will participate in this week’s planned executions of Brandon Bernard and Alfred Bourgeois.


On November 19, the federal government executed Orlando Hall, the eighth man to be put to death in 2020 by the Department of Justice (DOJ) under President Donald Trump.

The Bureau of Prisons reported that eight staff members who participated in Hall's executions have subsequently tested positive for COVID-19, as did Hall's spiritual adviser. Nevertheless, the Associated Press reports that five of those prison staff members are planning to take part in two more executions scheduled for Thursday and Friday.

An attorney for the DOJ is defending the decision, telling a judge Tuesday that they should be allowed to move forward anyway because they're following proper protocols. Attorney Jordan Von Bokern went so far as to argue that there's no evidence that the guards were infected at the execution and might have gotten infected anywhere.

Such an argument misses the point entirely and shows how recklessly the DOJ is using its last days under Trump to execute as many death row prisoners as they possibly can before Trump's presidency ends. President-elect Joe Biden opposes the use of the death penalty. Attorney General William Barr told the A.P. that he's hoping to somehow schedule even more executions in his final days as attorney general.

There's a spike of infections at the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana, where these executions are taking place. One inmate there, James Lee Wheeler, 78, died on Monday after becoming infected. He was serving a life sentence for drug trafficking–related crimes. The prison reports 300 active cases of COVID-19 among both prisoners and staff.

Gathering a bunch of people together for the purpose of a completely unnecessary event like an execution exacerbates the risk of spread. The Associated Press notes that each execution brings about 100 people into the complex. During the entire pandemic, America's prisons have been significant vectors of spread into nearby communities. There have been more than 225,000 infections of prisoners across the United States—26,000 of them federal inmates. There have been more than 1,500 deaths of prisoners, 157 in federal prisons. On top of that, there have been at least 56,000 infections among prison staff and more than 100 deaths.

On Thursday, if the Justice Department continues on this road, it will execute Brandon Bernard. In 1999 at the age of 18, Bernard participated in the robbery and carjacking of a couple in Killeen, Texas, that ended with the young men killing the couple. It happened on military property, and so resulted in federal prosecution. Three of the five young men involved were minors and were sentenced to prison. But Bernard and the other adult, Christopher Vialva (who was 19 at the time) were both sentenced to death. Vialva was executed in September.

Years later, five of the jurors have expressed doubts about putting Bernard to death and have come forward to plead for his life, as has a former prosecutor who helped try the case and a former warden at the prison. E. Tammy Kim of The New Yorker notes that thousands of people have sent letters to the White House on Bernard's behalf asking for his sentence to be commuted. On Tuesday, Kim tweeted that a government source told her that the Office of the Pardon Attorney actually recommended that the Justice Department commute his sentence to life in prison and the Justice Department agreed with this recommendation in its report to the White House.

On Wednesday, a judge denied a request to halt Bernard's execution. But, The Daily Beast notes, that Kim Kardashian West is one of the many people attempting to lobby Trump on Bernard's behalf. (Kardashian West's participation helped get Alice Marie Johnson freed in 2018.) But time is running out for both Bernard and Bourgeois, who is scheduled to be executed Friday for abusing and killing his 2-year-old daughter in 2002.

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  1. Meanwhile Joe Biteme is assembling a neo Marxist cast of hooligans and you’re bent about something else.

    Priorities matter.

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  2. they are going to kill them anyway but in the meantime they need to social distance and mask up.

    1. Hey, this way when their corpse tests positive we can count them as a COVID death.

    2. Seriously, who gives an old rusty focus ?? Prisons are perfect breeding grounds for the virus but the people that are placed there by the courts need to stay until their sentence is served, regardless of the risk. When you are found guilty of committing egregious crimes you lose your right to choose where to live, what to eat and whom to associate with. The death penalty, though useless as a deterrent, does prevent early release of dangerous felons, and escape and assaults on staff and assaults on other inmates. It’s part of the day to day operation at Terra Haute and there’s no reason to change the routine because we have an epidemic going on.

  3. Well, KungFlu just isn’t killing these assholes quick enough. Old Sparky will.

  4. “Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, D-R.I., said he is pursuing the post of director of the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy under President-elect Joe Biden.”

    1. I saw the “D-RI,” preceded by “Kennedy,” and thought that I’d stumbled across an old punk show flyer. I’ve been engaging in some Kennedy-esqu activities, so that might have had some influence.

    2. You mean The Patrick Kennedy who became an anti-pot activist after crashing his car near the Capitol while on booze and pills? Seems like he’s well qualified.

      1. Except he didn’t kill a passenger in his crash, did he?

        1. Nah, Kennedys need water COMBINED with a crash if the intent is to kill. Consider it a “dry run.”

  5. “Gathering a bunch of people together for the purpose of a completely unnecessary event like an execution …”

    Nothing could be more necessary than a society saying enough is enough. Britain used to execute people on the Monday following their sentencing. They could appeal to the Home Secretary, and that was that. And appeals WERE won. But only for a miscarriage of justice.

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  7. Time to fully automate executions, so no human contact required. All they need is a robot with a gun.

    1. Or maybe just let COVID do the work.

    2. People are always whining about how expensive the executions are, and yet we still view The Running Man purely as fiction instead of an instruction manual.

      1. Executions are dirt cheap, a single round of ammo, a penny of electricity for the chair and I can’t imagine a dose of lethal injection costs much to manufacture. It’s the bullshit appeal after appeal after appeal legal process and the $60k/year per inmate in jail that’s expensive.

        1. I’m fine with due process, merely suggesting that we recoup it’s expenses via pay-per-view sales.

  8. Not Even COVID-19 Infections Among Prison Staff Can Convince the Feds To Halt Executions

    There’s a joke here in this sentence, but I’ll let someone else make it.

  9. >>eight staff members who participated in Hall’s executions have subsequently tested positive for COVID-19

    okay first how many fucking times did it take to kill this guy? and second does Birx count this as a covid death because Hall obviously sneezed on everyone on his way out.

  10. Here’s your fainting couch, Scott Shackford.

    1. Oh, here’s another beauty! That article he linked from The New Yorker titled, “TRUMP’S FINAL CRUELTY: EXECUTING PRISONERS” *gasp* *gasp* *ominous music*

      How dare the government execute prisoners sentenced with execution?

      TDS is sad. Very sad.

  11. Bear in mind the person who was just executed, kidnapped, raped, and buried (while still alive) a teenager.

    The only scandal/outrage here is that he wasn’t executed sooner.

    1. It’s outrageous that the government holds a monopoly on retributive violence.

    2. Exactly! I’m a staunch advocate of execution for ANY violent crime, property crime or any crime with a victim. If we had that policy, repeat offenders would be a thing of the past and potential violent criminals would think twice when they realize the consequences of getting caught. It would also give pause to what should be considered a crime when the punishment is death, making for a freer world.
      It’s jail that’s ridiculous. The inmates have already proven they can’t be trusted to live in a civilized society and respect the natural rights of others. Why should society respect their natural right to life? Despite it being called “corrections”, let’s be honest, most will go right back to crime when they get out. And the few that won’t go back to crime will contribute little to society if anything and likely leach off of productive members of society by sucking up welfare resources. Jail is hideously expensive per inmate. There’s no rational reason for it to exist, just emotional “human life is precious” garbage regardless if the human life in question is a murderer, rapist, thief, arsonist, etc…

  12. God forbid a convicted rapist be exposed to Covid before being executed.

    This is getting just fucking stupid. I oppose the death penalty because I don’t trust the government to get it right, and this is still fucking stupid.

    Virtue has been signaled. Enjoy the cocktail zoom meeting.

    1. They’re “getting it right” with this spate of federal executions. None of them profess innocence. It would be easy to tweak the justice system so that only those convicted and who are guilty w/o any doubt are executed.

  13. I said this before, but I predict the Reason take, after election fraudsters start going to jail, will be along the lines of ….

    “Trump takes out his election frustrations on poor convicts by causing prison overpopulation and COVID rates to explode!”

  14. So let me get this right, Reason. The coof is overhyped BS except when it aligns with your wacko “by-any-means” opposition to capital punishment? No one can take your policy arguments seriously when they are inconsistent and transparently political. If you have a serious opposition to the state killing people, oppose that. Whining about insufficiently socially distanced executions makes you look terribly insincere.

  15. Executions could be dangerous, experts warn.

    1. “People are dying!”

  16. This is a weird take. What does ‘Rona have to do with anything? Argue against the death penalty, I’m with you there. But that’s the reason to be against executions, not some virus.

    1. Yeah, I generally like Shackleford’s writing, but I don’t think I’d see him making the same argument if the situation was reversed.

      For example:

      “Not Even COVID-19 Infections Among The Office of the Pardon Attorney Staff Can Convince the Feds To Halt Execution stays.”

  17. Bear in mind that these good folks were sentenced to death years ago, I believe under the Clinton and Bush II administrations.

    Trump didn’t decide at the last minute to schedule a bunch of executions, they just ran out of appeals and legal challenges. Trump could of course spare them the death penalty, but prior administrations (like Obama’s) could have done the same. What an opportunity for Reason to both-sides the debate!

  18. He abused and killed his two year old daughter? And of course the bleeding hearts are begging that he be spared the needle? Bullshit I say. If it were up to me I’d tie him to the bumper of my truck and take him for a long ride.

    1. It’s not about him, it’s about what powers the government ought to be trusted with.
      I wouldn’t lose any sleep if the mother of his child had given him the treatment you describe.

      1. When it comes to capital punishment, I’m generally against it, except in the most extreme cases. Like, successful terrorist-type attacks with multiple-count death tolls among civilians, for instance, such as:

        Boston Marathon Bombing
        Oklahoma City Bombing
        Las Vegas Shooting
        Florida Nightclub Shooting
        . . . other similar events . . .

        But those are all federal-level crimes. It’s weird, because generally I would prefer for power to be decentralized and rest with state or local governments, if anywhere (or nowhere at all!). But, when it comes to a punishment as permanent as a state-sanctioned killing, it seems to me that the states are in practice less trustworthy than the feds on this one issue.

        Maybe it’s because they generally can’t or don’t prosecute lower crimes and only (can) get involved when the event is particularly egregious, or it’s such a rock solid case. But when someone is federally convicted, I tend to have a bit more confidence in that verdict than in other cases. So I’m kinda OK with the feds having the power, and wish that states did not. I know it’s a weird take for someone who tends toward libertarianism.

        1. Also, I should mention that I know that there was no villain to put to death in several of those examples, they are just examples of the types of crimes that I’m OK with executing someone for.

  19. Executions should be extended to those convicted of ATTEMPTED murder.

    The act of stabbing someone 60 times or shooting them in the head at point blank range is INTENT TO KILL. It doesn’t matter if the victim somehow survives due to heroic medical intervention or sheer luck, the perpetrator was found to be guilty of intent to murder. Therefore they should be subject to the death penalty.

    And executions should be carried out promptly and PUBLICLY, with the execution piped into prisons with the inmates forced to watch.

    No longer should executions be rare events. They should be an everyday part of prison “life.” Make it real, make it commonplace and maybe THAT will act as a deterrent.

  20. I’m anti-death penalty, but tying it up with Covid is a pretty stupid take.

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  22. You’d think that at least AOC would get behind executing the Bourgeois.

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